Day 13. 22 miles
After the walk to Once Brewed that almost physically finished me off, and being mentally tortured between forests yesterday, I classed today as a detox day. This may surprise you being as it was a long old day of twenty two odd miles, but it was a day where I had no defined end point in mind. Simply, I could take as long as I wanted, or not. I had no YHA’s to reach, no shops, campsites or hotels. It was the last couple of days on the Pennine Way and much like the first, it was walking into the arse-end of nowhere. Just blissful wilderness, sheer peace - the hills, the moors and I. And maybe a few sheep, too.
I awoke early, unzipped the tent and peered out into a foggy abyss. I was momentarily confused. Had I overslept by a factor of months and awoke in mid-winter? I clambered out onto wet grass, pulled my hoody zip up high and walked across to the toilet block and warmed myself up in the lovely hot showers, and readied myself for another day. What had I got to do today, I wondered? Just walk, that’s all the day asked of me. Oh, and before all that, head back into Bellingham and stock up on provisions. It’s the last chance to do so before the end. Therefore, I wiped the damp tent down, packed up and timed my arrival at the Coop and bakers along with both the welcoming emergence of the sun and a coach load of kids on their way to school. I stocked up on noodles, pies, breakfast items, and then headed off at 8:30. I was still trying to work out whether to camp out for one further night or two, and I continued to be indecisive until the end of the day when a lack of water resources beyond Chew Green made my mind up for me.
That, however, was for much later. After a mile maybe of walking along the road out of Bellingham, I finally found some grass to walk on and to ease the pressure on the much put-upon feet, as I headed through Blakelaw Farm and through the fields to Hareshaw House which lay on the edge of the heather-lined moorland I now entered. Re-crossing the same road I walked down to arrive in Bellingham the previous afternoon, the trail led through the moors of Lough Shaw. For the first time in seemingly days, I was in a state of absolute sereneness and calm. The walking was easy, there was no pressure to be anywhere but where I was with each passing step. The views were panoramic, the air warm but with a breeze and there was barely a soul to be seen. Heading into nowhere is a really good thing. Additionally, with my early start I was making some really good progress. I strolled past the trig point of Deer Play, with heather either side of the clear and obvious path and the views were beautiful from the next marker, that of Whitley Pike, reached by walking through heather yet again. More heather was traipsed through en-route to Padon Hill with it’s pepperpot cairn visible for miles, though the path doesn’t actually head directly to the cairn itself - instead I passed more heather and heather was also very much in my sight, certainly in the foreground, with an end to the heather ahead as I approached Redesdale Forest.
The steep climb up to Brownrigg Head is compelled by the fact that because it is largely sheltered by the forest, much like Wark Forest yesterday, there is much mud to traipse through, though, it wasn’t too bad this morning. More concerning for some one of my height are the low hanging branches to hurdle around or under, and also a whole fallen tree that has to be limboed under which is difficult in itself, never mind when you’re also carrying a sixty five litre rucksack that needs to go under there as well. As it transpired, the climb to the top was pretty much effortless, and it was with a bit of a shock when I emerged out of the dense forest to a landscape that looked like a nuclear bomb had been dropped on it. Two years ago, the section between Brownrigg and the forest road, around a couple of miles, took absolutely forever due to every single footstep ending in a pool of water or mud. It was unrelenting hard work, and when Alex and I did have the rare opportunity to look up, what we could see were thousands of trees on one side of the fence, and heather lined fields on the other. What a contrast. The boggy ground has now been replaced by a stony and rocky track. Equally uneven to walk on and though it’s a pleasure to not sink with each step, the trees had been decimated. Seemingly every few feet was a tree on its side; the crater where were once its roots now filled with rain water. And further into the distance was a scarred and sad landscape, but happily, a regeneration project is ongoing and years from now should hopefully see a thriving landscape again both of trees and wildlife that should naturally flock there.
The new path meant it was a comparative breeze to reach the forest road, though during it I did wonder about the merits of some of these flagstones and paths to replace the more boggy sections of the trail. Granted, if you want an old fashioned Pennine experience you can still simply step off any man made path and walk through the mud and rainwater, something I funnily enough neglected to do. And whilst the vast majority of the trail is still in its organic form, I wonder how far it’s going to go with the improvements. On the plus side if it mostly protects the land, then I’m all for it and I’ve read enough about the problems that occurred in the old days, certainly around the heavily eroded peat bogs on Kinder and Black Hill. On the other side, I don’t want to be babysat. The idea of the Pennine Way is that it’s an adventure and bad ground, boggy ground and wet ground is all part of it. I’m certain that the fourteen days it took me to complete this walk would easily have been twenty had the paths been in their purest form like they were in the sixties, seventies and eighties.
Once on the forest service road it’s simply a case of get your head down and just plod on, get those miles bashed out before reaching the usual end to this section at Byrness. For well over an hour it’s four miles of hard walking that pounds the leg muscles. After 220 miles or so your body should be used to it, but this sort of surface gets no easier. Randomly, some respite can be found half way down the road when the trail heads for a mile off road through apparent long grass and bracken and goodness else what in there, but both times I’ve been that way I’ve avoided it and stuck religiously to the road. Eventually the picnic tables and (locked) toilets at Blackhopeburn are reached and thankfully it’s off road from there to Byrness, and the A68 that runs mostly parallel to the forest that you’ll eventually reach can be mostly heard but not seen. It’s a lovely and calm walk along the River Rede, where I briefly stopped for some water (the midday sun was by now out and I was baking), and then before I knew it I was popped out onto the main road at Byrness. Sadly, the offerings to the walker are few. There are no shops or cafes to speak of, the only immediate option for a dinner would be The Byrness Hotel/Bed and Breakfast which at 2pm was shut - I did knock on the door to see if a pot of tea was available, to which there was no answer - and if staying overnight there is also a caravan park that welcomes PW campers, but best of all and further down the main road is the Forest View Inn. A former YHA that is a great place to spend the night, and where we enjoyed a lovely stay before tackling the last leg in 2017. Like Frith Lodge, you eat dinner communally and they even have a bar, too. This wasn’t an option either, and as I planned to camp somewhere beyond Byrness Hill, I made my way to the hill top by embarking on a steep and sometimes muddy climb that is torturous in places (especially when arriving that day from Bellingham) but once at the summit the extensive view back down south can be admired with a profound feeling of satisfaction and on a hot day like today, the cool breeze up there was an added bonus.
Now I was here, I could essentially do as I pleased. I could camp at the summit and enjoy an afternoon off admiring the view, drinking a tea or three and enjoy a buffet of noodles and pastries. I could have had a nap, I was as free as a bird. But I decided to push on and ended up, as ever, doing too much. Though, my hand was slightly forced that once away from the summit of Byrness Hill, despite the absolute solitude that the last twenty six miles enjoys, there are surprisingly very few suitable spots to actually pitch up on. Additionally, once past Chew Green, five miles into that last chunk, there is also nowhere en-route where water can be found. Therefore, I made a conscious and sensible decision to push on to at least Chew Green, obtain as much water as possible - with my two bottles and filter bag this would only be a maximum of two and a half litres - and make this the last night of the trail. Reaching the end at Kirk Yetholm tomorrow. Pleased to to make this decisive decision, I headed over the military land that is this area of the walk - again, you wouldn’t want to stick your tent around here and have the army carrying out shooting practice at any point - and eventually found Chew Green, where the water supply was, but this equated to only a couple of very narrow channels underground that took age to fill up my bottles in. I thought this would be a good place to camp, meaning I’d have as much water as I wanted tonight and for breakfast, but the lay of the land was in no way conducive for a tent, being bumpy and full of large mounds of grass and weeds, and so I headed on and on, with two and a half kilos of water in my bag making the last part of the day increasingly uncomfortable.
In the end I camped on Dere Street, I couldn’t find anywhere else and even the spot I found was the best of a very large bad area. The lay of the land described above was the norm for the two miles or so up from Chew Green, and climbing over the fence to Dere Street that ran parallel with the trail, I spotted as flat a bit of land as I could find, with pleasant views to enjoy for my last wild camp of the trip. Dere Street in Roman times ran from York to Scotland and being as I was now firmly entrenched over the border for the night at least, it seemed an apt place to stay. I pitched up and basked in the lovely feeling of being able to eat and drink without the company of midges or flies. Knowing that all being well I’d be in Kirk Yetholm by lunchtime tomorrow, I got stuck into my resources. My last supper was a cup of tea, a meat and potato pie from the bakery in Bellingham and the hot course being a bowl of supernoodles. I did have some chocolate buttons lying around but these had melted and reformed into a block of chocolate that was like concrete. Therefore, I crawled into my sleeping bag and was out like a light and before sunset too. Just the nineteen miles remained.